14 reasons you used to come Downtown in the '80s
Downtown Milwaukee has changed over the years, about that there is no question. What's especially noticeable to folks of a "certain age" is how much has gone away.
Here are a few things that have departed the landscape in the city center, and if you remember them, there's a pretty good chance you spent a lot of time Downtown in the 1980s ...
1. The Grand Theater
Back when you could see a film (or a concert) there...
2. Burger King on 2nd and Wisconsin
It's loooonnnggg gone, but the mezzanine where you enjoyed your Whopper still exists.
3. Gabel News newsstand at 3rd and Wisconsin
The newsstand started out on the northwest corner, in front of Walgreen's (which also moved), but by 1983 it had moved to the northeast corner, and then, in the mid-1990s, it simply disappeared.
(Photo: Milwaukee Public Library)
One of its longtime employees, Frankie Little, played bass for Spike Jones and His City Slickers in the 1940s and '50s. Little worked there into the '80s.
4. Hotel Randolph
Charles Clayton Randolph moved the old Terminal Hotel to the southwest corner of 4th and Wisconsin in 1927 and named it after himself.
By the dawn of the '80s, it appeared to be in pretty rough shape and by mid-decade it, and the old YMCA, the Maryland Hotel, the Big Boy, the wig shop, the shuttered Starship rock club all fell to the wrecking ball. There's a cool animated gif of the demolition here.
5. Penney's, Schwartz, Motown Beauty Supply, the Wisconsin Theater
Some have said the Wisconsin Center isn't big enough to host certain types of conventions, but it sure covers a lot of the old Downtown. Beneath its foundation lies the old JC Penney that was on the northwest corner of 4th and Wisconsin and, to the west of it, a former Schwartz Bookshop.
(Photo: Milwaukee Public Library)
Across 5th Street, you'd find Motown Beauty Supply and the Wisconsin Theater, in its waning days. That building was packed with Milwaukee history, from the live music and dancing on its roof to the old draft office on the 6th Street side, where many young men reported for duty during World War II.
6. The Belmont Hotel
Having moved here in the early '80s, I almost can't imagine the Belmont ever looking as snazzy as it does in the postcard below, but surely it did, even though when it closed the daily paper said it "was never a classy hotel."
Though at times the barber shop, coffee shop and bar were beloved by their devoted clientele, Milwaukee had long since ceased to value the 105-room residential place by the time it was shuttered and pulled down in 1996. What was beloved was the sign that hung outside on the corner of 4th and Wells and it featured on one of my all-time favorite Pride of Milwaukee T-shirts. Surely, Kevin Callahan can make me another one of those, right Kev?
7. Radio Doctors
Radio Doctors was THE record store in Milwaukee for generations. I bought records there, my mom bought records there when she was young and her dad did so, too. I wouldn't be surprised if his mom also got her favorite German tunes on wax there. No matter what moves into the space, this location will always be Radio Doctors for many Milwaukeeans. If you're of a certain age, you went there in the '80s to buy the first Blue Note CD reissues, Latin hip-hop 12"s, techopop cassettes or tickets to see The Clash at the Auditorium.
8. Johnnie Walker's and The Princess on 3rd and Wells
Johnnie Walker's opened here in 1937 when the owner bought an existing clothing shop on the site (and another on Mitchell Street).
It expanded into the old Brass Rail jazz (and later strip) club, and endured until 1984 when it moved to Wisconsin Avenue so the site could be cleared – along with the adjacent Princess Theater – for, well, nothing ... as you can see. Walker's last location closed in 2010, a victim of the recession, and, perhaps, changing tastes.
Gimbels. Nuff said.
10. The park on Water and Wisconsin
After The Pabst Building was razed in 1982, but during years before 100 E. Wisconsin was erected, the riverfront land on the northwest corner of Water and Wisconsin sat vacant, the land was landscaped simply with grass and a mural was put up on the south wall of the building that now houses Gold's Gym. It was a funky mural that looked different if viewed from the left than if viewed from the the right. The grassy patch wasn't all that much to behold but it looked better, and was deemed much safer, than an open pit.
11. Someplace Else
Everybody loved Someplace Else, or so it seemed, for its two decades at 632-34 N. Water St. ... until it was destroyed by fire in February 1989. Nearly 150 firefighters battled the conflagration, which began in the basement of the pub, which also sometimes hosted concerts, including early '70s appearances by a nascent Cheap Trick.
12. City Center soup guy
Rumor was the guy who ran the popular lobby food court at 735 N. Water St. back in the day might not have had all the requisite permits, but that didn't matter much – so the story goes – because his most devoted customer happened to be the mayor. I can't say if that's true, but I do know he's gone and the building's been gussied up since.
13. DesForges Booksellers
There was a time when Downtown had a number of purveyors of the printed word, including DesForges on the corner of Wisconsin and Milwaukee. It moved there in 1981 when forced to vacate its spot across the street to make way for the 411 E. Wisconsin building. In 1985, Howard and Peggy Taylor – who owned Webster's Books on Downer Avenue – bought the place, but the book business was changing and DesForges didn't last but a few years longer.
14. The QFM banner building
OK, so maybe you didn't come Downtown specifically to see the old (vacant, I think) factory building on the 400 block of North Plankinton that backed onto the river, but you could hardly miss it. For years, the building – surrounded by vacant lots – had a big WQFM advertising sign hanging from it ... or at least that's how my aging memory recalls it. But I can't get anyone else to confirm this, so perhaps I'm conflating memories. If so, I humbly retract No. 14.
If you've got a photo of the building with the banner on it, please let me know. Anyway, I'm pretty sure the building – which the 1910 Sanborn map describes as housing a robe factory, a "sweat pad" factory and a wholesale harness factory – is just to the right of the lamppost in this one...
(Photo: Milwaukee Public Library)
Read about 11 dead and buried Downtown rock clubs here.
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